Beginning with Expo 67, Montréal was fertile ground for experimentation in what would eventually become multimedia. The city was already showing clear signs of vision and multidisciplinarity in experimenting with technology to generate creations that reached different audiences. In the mid-1990s, as the general public began to adopt the Internet, the explosion of new technologies and the accessibility of technical means were game changers for all of society, from the public to creators.
In the wake of this groundswell, the first organizations dedicated to digital creation were born. In 1995, Montréal hosted the sixth symposium of the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts (ISEA), out of which grew the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT). The SAT, known for the development of immersive technologies, plays a dual role: it is an artist centre and digital era research centre. Next came the Daniel Langlois Foundation, the Festival du nouveau cinéma et des nouveaux médias’ Media Lounge, MUTEK and Elektra. From OBORO to the TOPO, from Studio XX to Perte de Signal, from Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon (4d Art) to Réalisations, research and creation centres kept popping up.
As early as 2005, Montréal was already recognized as one of the leading international sites for digital arts. The Ville de Montréal’s Cultural Development Policy identified Montréal as a world leader in what was then called “cyberculture.”
In January 2007, the Ville de Montréal, in partnership with the Conseil des arts de Montréal, published a 35-page document: Les arts numériques à Montréal: le capital de l’avenir (the digital arts in Montréal: the capital of the future). Intended to raise awareness among decision makers about the outlook and issues for digital creation, the document concluded as follows:
“Montréal has what it takes to reach great heights: a critical mass of artists and artisans, incredible advances in technology, a stimulating creative climate, knowledgeable foundations and research chairs, dynamic, flexible organizations and visionary business leaders. But to maintain and reinforce this position, we need to go further. And by increasing the sector’s visibility through a number of base-building initiatives (…), Montréal will justifiably be seen as a universal city, open to creation and innovation. The speed with which we act in this area will give us a unique opportunity: to anticipate the future, to think big and to aim high, as the city so often has.”
There has been a technology revolution in recent years with the appearance of smartphone touch-screen interfaces and the creation of Facebook and Twitter. Up to that point, we knew that digital technology had a place in our world. But today, digital technology is part of our daily lives, at the centre of a powerful world where networking is increasingly the norm for content interaction. Whether intentionally or not, we have all become digital culture explorers.
Adapting to this new reality, Montréal quickly assumed world leadership in a number of sectors, including in disciplines of digital arts, new narrativity, video games (VR, AR, serious game, marketing, art), immersion, virtual and augmented reality, visual effects, interactive experiences in public spaces and artificial intelligence.
In video games alone, we no longer simply supply creative labour to major international studios. Over 150 local, independent companies are testimony to how this environment is thriving.
Independent creation now exists alongside an entertainment industry comprised of private companies and institutions. Montréal also has a dynamic startup scene, particularly in video games and mobile applications. New models of financing have been created with investors, incubators and knowledge-sharing events and sites. Digital creation has made its way to the public space, reaching a wider audience. The ecosystem is complex and rich; there are a growing number of interdependencies, but what distinguishes each player remains intact. From creation in artist centres to research in institutions, from small video game developers to major technology companies, each in their own way and with their own audience, the different settings and actors are bursting with ideas locally and shining internationally.
While there is a dynamic climate in Montréal that is making itself felt beyond our borders, Montréal and Québec digital creation and creativity are still a well-kept secret. For the general public and for most decision makers and influencers, Céline Dion, Cirque du Soleil and Arcade Fire have made their mark at home and abroad. Digital Montréal is familiar to specialists, and the global impact of its artists, industries and institutions is underestimated.
A few names — artists such as Rafael Lozano-Hammer and Vincent Morisset, and studios such as Moment Factory and Daily tous les jours (Mélissa Mongiat and Mouna Andraos) — have emerged, propelled by their public installations and supported by institutions such as the Musée d’art contemporain, the NFB and the Quartier des spectacles Partnership. Events such as the International Digital Art Biennal (BIAN) and the Sight+Sound festival (Eastern Bloc) have taken their place in the digital art ecosystem. Major projects such as Cité Mémoire (Lemieux Pilon 4d Art) and those launched as part of Montréal’s 375th anniversary (Jacques Cartier Bridge, Avudo, Pointe-à-Callière, KM3) have made their mark. The game, animation and visual effects industries and Hybride and Rodeo FX hold strong power of attraction.
Things are happening in the digital art and creativity communities; alliances are being created and networking is being done: the Conseil des arts de Montréal Composite evenings, CQAM (Conseil québécois des arts médiatiques) artist in residence program at Turbulent, MUTEK_IMG, Digital Spring, not to mention the many trade shows, particularly at the SAT and the Phi Centre.
Montréal has a growing number of wide-ranging initiatives to promote digital creativity, notably the most recent, HUB-MTL: “In November 2017, a number of creative ecosystems will converge on HUB v1.0: virtual and augmented reality, sound and visual effects, video games, music, multimedia (interactive, immersive), branding and digital arts.”
It would be of benefit to channel these initiatives by embracing all forms of digital cultural expression (performances, installations, web experiences, mobile apps, public interventions, games, connected objects), regardless of the channel they emerge from (artist centres, incubators, agencies, collectives, companies). The objective is not to create a mishmash, but to understand and respect each one’s particularities, while working toward a common goal: making sure Montréal is recognized as the world capital of digital art and creativity.
Additionally, too often sectors operate in silos, whether in terms of how they are financed or their niche: artist centres with artist centres, games with games, the web with the web… We need to break down these silos to create a climate of solidarity and cooperation between larger and smaller players and between the different links in the value chain. While emerging artists sometimes experience financial precariousness, institutions and medium and large players are writing a new chapter in the Montréal economy. The missions and priorities are different, but there are common objectives among the digital art and creativity communities: exposure, recognition, development and more meaningful encounters among players and with the public. It is in everyone’s interest to create intersections that benefit all sectors, by sharing knowledge and expertise, with a better understanding of each other’s issues.
It is essential to continue the collaborative process among digital artists, creators, thinkers, designers, programmers, entrepreneurs and investors. As part of this process, we will work on a joint action plan during 2017-2018. Political momentum will facilitate this effort.
It is time to propose a strategic partnership with the Ville de Montréal to confirm Montréal’s position as one of the world leaders in digital creativity by 2020 and to propose measures to stimulate and support sectors that emerge from digital creativity.
It is time to ensure that the governments of Québec and Canada, in their orientation documents and action plans, are moving in the same direction, in the interest of all our communities.
It is also time for the members of the digital art and creativity community to agree on what is required to pursue our growth, at home and abroad.